September 24, 2017

COMFORT ZONE:

When there is no tomorrow : In watching the Indians on their historic streak, it became clear the most remarkable thing about the team wasn't the wins. (Wright Thompson, 09/19/17, ESPN The Magazine)

The Cleveland Indians return home in the middle of the night, winners of 15 straight and counting, and the feeling on the plane is something like an army or a rock band marching across a continent, exhausted but connected on a soul level: brothers in arms. The next day, the players head back into work. A light breeze blows across the stadium's empty concourses, which smell like popcorn and butter. They haven't lost in two weeks, pounding down the season's backstretch, playoff-bound. Their manager, Terry Francona, makes the two-block trip from home on his scooter, waving at cops and other working men. In the clubhouse, he swims to help the circulation in his injury-ravaged legs. He had heart surgery two months ago and missed only six games, the son of a pro ballplayer and the father of a combat-hardened Marine.

An old security guard named Bill, who brought his lunch in a plastic sandwich bag, sits outside the clubhouse. A sign on the doors says PRIVATE. It specifies no wives, no agents, no attorneys, just "immediate male family members" -- listing as appropriate fathers and grandfathers, brothers and sons. Nothing in pro sports is quite like a baseball clubhouse. Not merely a place for dressing and undressing, it's a shadow opponent -- more akin to a golf course than a football locker room. Individual games might be won or lost on the field, but seasons are won or lost in the endless hours between, 162 games in 183 days, the grind itself as difficult as any other physical aspect of the sport. Ballplayers are famous for superstitions and hardwired routines, for talking to bats and pissing on their hands, for destroying coolers and screaming at reporters and at each other. All those things are outward reflections of the inner anxiety that grows day by day, series by series. They often publicly mock their fragile attempts to impose order on chaos, whistling past the graveyard of broken baseball dreams.

This brings us to the shrine in the back left corner of the Indians' clubhouse.

The centerpiece is a large statue of Jobu, the Voodoo god from the movie Major League, which is of course about a winning streak. It's evolved over the past two seasons to include the main Jobu plus three smaller satellite Jobus. Two cigars rest beneath the large idol, and another stands upright in a shot glass. Someone has left an offering of Yves Saint Laurent cologne. A fan has sent in a potato; they've dutifully put it on the altar, which is actually just a plastic office cabinet. Now the potato is sprouting. It's a little gross. There's an incense holder that says "Party at Napoli's House" and a package of incense. There are three airplane bottles of Bacardi and, standing sentry on either side of the centerpiece statue, two fifths of Jobu brand rum, which is actually a thing.

"Very bad to touch Jobu's rum," says two-time All-Star Jason Kipnis. [...]

DOWN THE HALL, Francona sits in his office behind a huge framed picture of himself as a child, in the Indians dugout with his dad. He is, perhaps more than anyone else in the game, a creation of this weird, subterranean clubhouse world. "I'm probably more comfortable here than I am anywhere," he says, gesturing around at the concrete walls. "I think I have an advantage because I grew up here."

Some of his earliest memories are from clubhouses.

His father, the original Tito Francona, played for nine teams, including six seasons with Cleveland. Young Terry once walked across a field before a game to shake Ted Williams' hand. "Mr. Williams," he said, "I'm Mr. Francona's son, and he wanted me to come over and say hello."

Williams grinned at the boy.

"Well, you are a great-looking kid!" he replied. "Now I want to know one thing, young man. Can you hit?"

Francona saw how his father's friends treated each other and the game, and every lesson he got about how a man behaved was taught by ballplayers. His humor, his ethics, his personal code -- all shaped inside a stadium.

Posted by at September 24, 2017 10:59 AM

  

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